Kelsea Ballerini drew heat and praise Sunday night after featuring all-star drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” during a colorful performance at the 2023 CMT Music Awards.
The “Peter Pan” and “This Feeling” singer, who also co-hosted the fan-voted country-music awards show, sang her new ride-or-die best friend anthem “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” backed by a quartet of “Drag Race” stars — Manila Luzon, Kennedy Davenport, Jan Sport and Olivia Lux — dressed as glam midcentury housewives lounging on a lawn in front of a white picket fence.
The live performance made quite the statement amid a brewing debate over anti-LGBTQ legislation in Ballerini’s home state of Tennessee, the hub of country music, where some musicians have aligned themselves against laws limiting LGBTQ rights and legislators using hateful rhetoric about transgender people.
The conservative state recently classified shows with “male or female impersonators” as adult cabaret and “harmful to minors,” but the polarizing antidrag law, which restricts such performances and was to take effect April 1, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge last week.
With this year’s CMT Awards taking place at the Moody Center in Austin, Texas, Ballerini appeared emboldened to broadcast her political stance on the cable network and openly object to the conservative-backed legislation in front of her colleagues and country-music fans.
“if you go down, i’m going down too // thank you to these iconic queens and @manilaluzon @kennedyddoftx @janjanjan @TheOliviaLux and @CMT for celebrating love, self expression, and performance,” Ballerini tweeted after the show. Luzon, Davenport, Sport and Lux echoed the sentiment on their own social media accounts too.
“If you go down, I’m goin down too we love you @KelseaBallerini!! We slayed the CMTs!!!,” Sport tweeted.
However, a number of viewers took issue with Ballerini’s “woke” showcase, unleashing their disappointment in her social media comments and suggesting that the display would be detrimental to her career.
“I can’t believe you would put this trash on TV. or anywhere around country music. I’ve been watching for 35 years but I’ll never watch CMT again,” said one reply to Ballerini’s tweet.
“Probably should know your audience… really sickening @CMT allowed this,” tweeted another user.
“Nope nope nope. Just sing your songs and stop worrying about being woke. No thanks. Bye,” added an Instagram user.
“DISAPPOINTED!! Not a fan of hers anymore,” said another comment.
“I actually don’t have anything against drag queens but this was just random af and seemed like she’s really trying to be ‘woke’ to gain more popularity. So weird,” added another.
However, many applauded the musician on her act of defiance and show of alliance. (“Drag Race” alum Jan Sport also went after those who aired their grievances in Ballerini’s replies.)
“Not one child was harmed in the making of this production,” said a comment on the performance video posted on CMT’s YouTube channel.
“Legendary. Shows just how easy it is to accept others and be a good ally,” a different YouTube user wrote.
“Can we just talk about how great a statement it is to highlight drag performers! Queens!!! All of them!!!,” added another.
“For country fans upset about this, wait till you find out that MANY of the songs you blast on country radio are written by LGBT writers. Get over it. Country music is for everyone,” tweeted singer-songwriter Leland, who has collaborated with Ballerini and wrote RuPaul’s song “Kitty Girl.”
“All y’all keyboard warriors hating on Kelsea for this one better add Dolly [Parton] to the list. One of the funniest stories she tells is about entering AND losing a Dolly Drag Queen contest,” tweeted another.
LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD also highlighted Ballerini’s “bold allyship” by featuring the drag performers amid the anti-trans legislation pushes in Tennessee, Texas and other Southern states. The group also highlighted the CMT Awards’ inclusion of out singer Lily Rose and red-carpet host Cody Alan, as well as country superstar Shania Twain’s call on the industry to be “all inclusive” during the ceremony.
“Kelsea’s performance at the CMT Music Awards reinforced that drag is not a threat, it’s an art,” said Anthony Allen Ramos, GLAAD’s vice president of communications and talent, in a statement to The Times. “New legislation that tries to silence drag performers in some Southern states is as unpopular as it is unnecessary … Country music stars are using their platforms to stand with the LGBTQ community and the industry is growing into an explicitly welcoming place for LGBTQ fans and talent. Other country music stars, concerts, and events should take note of CMT’s inclusion and follow suit.”
Ballerini opened Sunday’s broadcast on mournful note, recognizing the March 27 Covenant School shooting in Nashville that claimed the lives of three 9-year-old students and three adult school employees. (Artists attending the CMT Awards also wore black ribbons on the red carpet to honor the victims.)
In her opening remarks, the emotional co-host spoke out against the scores of mass shootings in the U.S. this year alone and shared that her 15-year-old classmate died from gun violence in her high-school cafeteria in 2008. Ballerini dedicated the evening’s broadcast to “the ever-growing list of families, friends, survivors, witnesses and responders whose lives continue to forever be changed by gun violence.”
“I pray deeply that the closeness in the community that we feel through the next few hours of music can soon turn into action — like real action — that moves us forward together to create change for the safety of our kids and our loved ones,” she said.